Giving Thanks: Gratitude Practice

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

Gratitude is good for us. Brain research shows that simply being grateful releases neurotransmitters that act like dopamine in our brains, making us feel good, and boosting our overall health.

New findings show that practicing gratitude actually rewires our brains to be more altruistic, activating areas of the brain that reward our generosity by increasing the neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and also goal attainment. In other words, the more we find ways to be grateful, the more generous we are and the more we give others a reason to be grateful. That feedback loop gives us more happiness and satisfaction. 

The hook is that we can't just be grateful over one meal, one day a year. We have to make it a habit to remember specific things we are grateful for on a regular basis. And consciously act in generous ways, too. 

Those who have read this blog for a while know that Thanksgiving marks a difficult time of year for me because my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer a few days after Thanksgiving in 2011, when he was just 61. His death followed that of my mom, who died in February of that year. I midwifed both deaths at home, as each wished, with the help of family, friends, and hospice care.

It's been eight years. Still, I tend to fold inward in late November, not so much from grief, but from anticipatory anxiety. Those two deaths catapulted me into a few very difficult years as I dug myself out of what seemed like an impossible amount of debt, and invented a life that was happy, sustainable, and satisfying. 

As an antidote to the trauma of those events and the blues that stem from my muscle memories, I consciously practice gratitude and generosity at this time of year (not only now--I'm just more aware of it at this season). Here's what I'm most grateful for right now, in no particular order: 

Casa Alegría, in our surprise Thanksgiving snowstorm

My new house, which I call Casa Alegría, "House of Joy" in Spanish. It's been through foreclosure and needs some serious love, but it's such a beautiful space with great light and open spaces inside and out, plus it feels sheltered in its little hollow. It offers both refuge and expansive views, a nest that gives me a wider perspective on the world, both literally and figuratively. 

The great room, with its two-story-high ceiling of tongue-and-groove pine, sun-space opening onto the nearby wild, and The Beast, the pellet stove that supplements the sun's heat. 

The loft, with my desk tucked into the south-facing dormer with it's hundred-mile view all the way to central New Mexico's Sierra Oscura. 

The kitchen, all warm-colored pine cabinets and cozy beamed ceiling. (There's a hummingbird nest in the New Mexico locust tree out the window.)

The master bedroom with its sky blue accent wall, and a door leading directly outside to a little covered porch facing east toward the greenbelt below the house. 

I've just gotten started on the work Casa Alegría needs to feel like a healthy home, beginning with painting a few of the all-white walls in shades of sage green, pale terracotta, dawn yellow, and a soft sky blue. And replacing aged light fixtures with new, energy-efficient ones. The more substantive work will begin this winter, when the uninsulated garage door that no longer shuts completely is replaced with a new, insulated one. (That door not sealing explains the money I spent sterilizing the mouse-infected attic above the garage.) Then I'll have insulation blown into the attic, which has none after I disposed of the old mouse-pee-crusted fiberglass batts. Plus gutters added to the front portal and the north- and east-facing roofs. 

Then comes replacing all of the openable windows and a few of the exterior doors with more efficient ones that will actually seal as well as letting in more light. Followed by stabilizing an exterior post or two, a tricky process that involves putting jacks under overhanging roofs and carefully removing a post, digging a foundation and pouring a concrete base, and then replacing the post using plates and bolts instead of simply nails. 

All of which sounds like a lot of work, but is nothing compared to the two years of starting in the basement and working my way upwards re-building the Cody house!

Another thing I'm particularly grateful for is the company of a charming canine caballero (gentleman), Badger, the 11-year-old Vizsla in the photo above. Badger has been visiting for the last two weeks while his guy was away on a road trip. In his own polite way, Badger insists on two long walks a day--we usually do three miles or more--on the roads and trails around the house. He also insists on playtime when I've worked too long, usually by sitting up on the couch and howling until I come downstairs from the loft!

Badger and his person, DeWitt, wandered into my life when I was teaching at Ring Lake Ranch in September. That deepening friendship is another thing I'm grateful for. DeWitt generously spent a week here helping me move. He insisted on playtime too, so we spent a night relaxing at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, and then played hooky for a whole afternoon exploring part of the old Camino Real with DeWitt's sister, Lori, and her friend Allison, and their horses. It's been so long since I had horses in my life that I had entirely forgotten the joy of simply riding a trail for a few hours without any agenda or schedule. 

And that's another thing I'm grateful for: I'm relearning joy and play. I have been pushing myself so hard for so long that I have neglected the practice of stepping back from relentless do-ing into a more loving and trusting be-ing. It's time for me to re-learn be-ing and letting my heart guide me. 

I'm also grateful for all of you, and the love and compassion you offer the world. 

What are you grateful for?